To say that 21-year-old Deborah Brown is involved in many activities at the University of Maryland, College Park, is an understatement. Among her activities, the Houston native is president of Avirah, the Israeli dance company at the university, and managing editor for The Mitzpeh, the Jewish student newspaper.
What got you started in being involved with the Jewish community in general?
I chose U-Md. for college because of the nature of the community, because it was so diverse and had so many opportunities. I’ve always been someone who likes getting involved, like getting my hands dirty, going to events, meeting people. So I knew I wanted to do that. I got involved in some clubs I hadn’t been planning to get involved in, but ended up being way cooler than I would have thought. And then I also find it hard to say no. If there’s a cool opportunity, I want to try to go to it, even if I’m also going to other events.
What was your Jewish upbringing?
I grew up Modern Orthodox. I went to Jewish day school for my whole life and Modern Orthodox synagogue. And my parents are Modern Orthodox, but we have this kind of view of the world that you should go out and experience things and learn and also have your Jewish values with you, but don’t necessarily be held back or limited by your observance.
So I also took a gap year after high school in Israel. That was much more of a spiritual experience than I’ve ever had before, studying in a seminary for a full year. I knew I wanted to end up in a career that was in a Jewish field. So I got to U-Md. and I was in the business school and I have my Jewish journey alongside my life journey, and it’s a part of my identity.
What are other defining factors of you being Jewish?
Prayer is a big thing for me, personally. I am not currently, but while I’ve been at U-Md., I have gone to the daily prayer services and I find that really beautiful. And I find time to pray or just meditate or take deep breaths or do whatever I need to do to find that connection.
Music is another big part of it. I love Jewish music. I love music in general. And then just the prayer aspect of music and then the more communal songs like wedding songs versus songs we sing when we’re teaching our kids about the Bible. Freshman year I went to Hadar’s Singing Community Intensive with Hillel, which was a really cool learning experience, about the power of niggunim [wordless melodies] and how to lead a niggun so after that, we started leading the niggun circle. So music has been really important to me.
How does being a woman in a Modern Orthodox community shape your identity?
My mom grew up Conservative, where women do everything the men do. In school, I was being taught that women didn’t do certain things or do certain things differently. And I didn’t like that. I’m still Modern Orthodox, but I still have all these questions about why: What is woman’s role really in Judaism and what is right or what does God want or what is best for a woman, for all women or for Judaism, or the world?
And so I think about that a lot, and especially how that relates to prayer and Torah service. I love reading Torah, and I love being involved in Torah services. And I’m also still trying to keep Orthodox conditions. I would love to be part of Torah services. And I do sometimes go to the Conservative minyan on campus, and that’s wonderful, but I am still more comfortable in a Modern Orthodox setting.
I’m trying to just always do the right thing and live by Jewish values, like tzedek [justice] and treating people nicely, v’ahavta lereiacha kamocha [the practice of loving your neighbor as yourself] and understanding different perspectives and being respectful of differences. For me, that’s part of being Jewish.
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